05/01/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Yes We Can

When President Obama and the other world leaders gather to discuss the current global economic crisis, they must also focus on the threat of catastrophic global climate change. These two crises should not be regarded as separate issues. Many of the causes and some of the solutions are the same. Both were preventable. Both are, in President Obama's words, "a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some but also our collective failure to make hard choices". Equally with both, it is the poorest and the most vulnerable who will invariably suffer the most. I call upon President Obama to provide global leadership and deliver "the change we need." The time has come to put the future of people first.

Nearly three years ago Gordon Brown proclaimed: "I believe that the world needs a new paradigm that moves the environmental challenge to the centre of policy. ... For too long too many governments thought their objectives began and ended with economic prosperity and jobs." Given the severe recession in this country, does this now mean that the future of the environment will be as bleak as our current economy? The Prime Minister's rhetoric sadly illustrates his failure of leadership on both of these vital issues.

The warnings from our most respected scientists are loud and clear, yet government leaders continue to ignore the scale of the threat. According to many scientists, we have less than a decade left to address the issue of climate change before we reach the "tipping point", or the point of no return. It is the responsibility of leaders everywhere to fully understand this problem if they are to meet the challenges before us. Failure to act effectively is likely to precipitate cataclysmic changes that may obliterate life on earth. As Dr. Rowan Williams put it, "the ultimate tragedy... (would be if) humanity gradually choked, drowned, or starved by its own stupidity".

In these times of economic crisis, we need to be aware of the economic consequences of climate change. The reality is that failure to act will be far more costly and damaging to the economy over the long term than acting immediately. The costs of acting soon are manageable, especially when compared with the projected loss of human life, natural disasters, and economic collapse in the coming decades. With the current financial meltdown and global economic recession, we failed to heed the signs before it was too late and we are now forced to deal with the consequences and bear the burden of bailouts. We are making the same mistake with our environment. But when this system breaks, it might not even be possible to fix.

Investing in renewable energy and clean technologies should be seen as a key part of the solution to both the current global economic and climate crises. In Professor Nicholas Stern's words, "investments in ...(these) technologies could provide sustainable and well-founded economic growth, in contrast to the recent booms, and eventual busts, driven by flaky dot-com ventures or inflated house prices." The work of Global Urban Development's Climate Prosperity Project, Professor Stern, and many other eminent economists have demonstrated how investing in renewable energy and clean technologies can generate substantial and sustainable economic growth worldwide, increasing jobs, incomes, efficiency and productivity, and at the same time safeguarding our future.

To quote Oscar Wilde, the current financial mess clearly demonstrates the danger of "knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing." The time has come to recognize the true economic asset value of our natural resources -- rain forests, biodiversity, oceans, barrier reefs, and much more. The long-term economic value of our global ecosystem are best enhanced through innovation, efficiency and conservation, not reckless exploitation.

We also need to address the question of "climate justice". Developing countries suffer most from the impacts of climate change, although they have not been the primary cause of the problem.

Justice is the litmus test for any measure designed to combat climate change. This includes justice between countries, justice within countries, justice between generations, and justice for Mother Nature. Climate justice means providing poorer countries access to modern clean technologies to help them raise their living standard by embarking on a renewable energy revolution.

The challenges that we face are daunting but not insurmountable. Last year President Obama called climate change "one of the greatest moral challenges of our generation," and more recently he said "We cannot afford politics as usual -- not at a moment when the energy challenge we face is so great and the consequences of inaction are so dangerous. We must act quickly and we must act boldly to transform our entire economy -- from our cars and our fuels to our factories and our buildings." His "New Energy for America Plan" is an important step in the right direction. However, his plan may not be sufficient. Given the scale of the potential disaster before us, he has no choice but to rapidly move towards a sustainable economy based on Climate Prosperity.

G-20 leaders must now show the "unity of purpose." We need a broad global consensus on vital political and financial measures to implement drastic emissions reduction targets combined with efforts to restore the planet's ecosystems. The earth is perilously close to climate chaos that threatens to spiral way out of control. If the wealthy industrialised countries want to limit the rise in the average global temperature, they must commit to legally binding reductions of 80% greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2020. Current pledges of 20% greenhouse gas emission reductions by 2020 are inadequate given the gravity of the current situation:

Additional policy actions are needed. I propose these simple solutions as part of the road map leading to the UNFCCC in Copenhagen.

  • The criteria for the Copenhagen agreement should be based on scientific facts, not on political expediency and vested interests. This time we must not allow governments to pay mere "lip service" to any new agreement. Government leaders must implement effective solutions.

  • All governments must also subscribe to and support the work of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), conceived by environmental leader Hermann Scheer, championed by the German Government and endorsed by seventy seven countries.
  • Wealthy countries must live up to their responsibilities and set up an international investment fund that guarantees technology transfer from the Global North to the Global South. According to the McKinsey Global Institute, at least one trillion dollars must be invested over the next decade to enable developing countries to expand their economies through renewable energy, resource efficiency, and clean technologies. Production of these new technologies will create millions of new jobs and business opportunities in rich and poor countries alike. The best way for the G-20 leaders to address the current economic crisis is to invest in a globally sustainable future -- an economic and environmental "win-win" solution for the entire world.
  • All countries must transform taxes on energy into taxes on emissions, promoting the supply and demand of emission-free energy.
  • We must embark upon a global programme of forest protection and reforestation. Planting 10 million square kilometres of new forests will help stabilise the concentration of CO2 in the earth's atmosphere at 350 parts per million.
  • We must not look to nuclear energy as the panacea. Should we combat the dangers of climate change by ignoring the dangers of nuclear power? There are far too many environmental hazards and financial burdens associated with nuclear power plants. These include security risks, the volume of nuclear waste and the lack of safe disposal methods, excessive water usage, and finite supplies of uranium, massive construction and maintenance costs, radiation and cancer and other harmful human and ecological impacts.
  • We must establish a new international initiative combining biosphere protection and restoration, in order to reverse the decline of biodiversity.
  • We must provide financial incentives that empower households and businesses to invest in renewable energy and resource efficiency. For example, "Feed-in Tariff" legislation in Germany has created a quarter of a million new jobs and enabled millions of people to benefit from renewable technologies.
  • Governments and Corporations whose practices put the environment and human life at risk must be held accountable for their actions.
  • The world situation is deteriorating faster than we previously anticipated. Recent studies show that even the most alarming predictions by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2007 were far too conservative. In Professor Stern's words "Global emissions of greenhouse gases are growing more quickly than projected, the ability of the planet to absorb those gases now appears lower than was assumed, the potential increases in temperatures due to rising gas concentrations seem higher, and the physical impacts of a warming planet are appearing at a faster rate than expected."

    At this critical juncture in history it is well to remember the words of President Abraham Lincoln: "You cannot avoid the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today." President Obama has inherited a daunting array of global issues that urgently require his leadership. The world economic recession, Climate change, wars terrorism, epidemics, genocide, world hunger and the poverty that threatens millions of people, to name just a few. His commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. to 1990 levels by 2020 will not be enough. Winston Churchill declared on the eve of the Second World War: "The era of procrastination, of half measures, of soothing and baffling expedience and delays, is coming to a close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences." President Obama, your decisions in addressing the challenges of climate change may have far greater global impact than the actions of any political leader in world history, literally affecting the very survival of human civilisation. You said "yes we can" and now we have the audacity to hope.